A long time ago, in a galaxy, far, far away …
An eight-year old boy sat in a darkened movie theater, eyes wide and mouth open. On the screen in front of him, an epic space opera was unfolding and, while he didn’t know it at the time, the sights and sounds that he experienced that day would last a lifetime. And the sound that resonated most came from what looked like a glowing sword.
I am, of course, talking about a lightsaber. An elegant weapon for a more civilized age, the lightsaber was able to cut through enemies at will, deflect blaster bolts and cut or melt most substances with little resistance. Lightsaber duels were swordplay-on-steroids, thanks to the distinctive hum and the fact that being stabbed with a weapon made of magnetically-contained plasma normally ended badly.
And, now, after more than four decades of being a pop culture icon, the lightsaber has transcended its fantasy weapon status.
According to The Associated Press, the French Fencing Federation has officially recognized lightsaber dueling as a competitive sport, elevating the energy sword to the same level as the traditional foil, epee and sabre. To put that into context, the blades used in 21st century fencing have been a staple part of every modern Olympic Games, with the sport itself present since the inaugural games in 1896.
So why have the French decided to welcome the Jedi’s weapon of choice into the world of elite fencing?
The simple answer is that the physical activity in lightsaber duels mirrors the combat in fencing itself, with organized three-minute bouts providing the duelists with a physical workout. Without the potential for being sliced in half and falling into a reactor shaft.
In addition, the federation believes that adding lightsabers to its roster of traditional blades will both increase the global awareness of fencing and encourage more young people to try the sport. The key, the federation believes, is to offer participants an option that allows them to live out their swordplay fantasies. In other words, the millions of Star Wars fans. Some of whom may not be that active.
“With young people today, it’s a real public health issue. They don’t do any sport and only exercise with their thumbs,” said Serge Aubailly, the federation secretary general, in an interview with the AP. “It’s becoming difficult to (persuade them to) do a sport that has no connection with getting out of the sofa and playing with one’s thumbs. That is why we are trying to create a bond between our discipline and modern technologies, so participating in a sport feels natural.”
Fuelling the fantasy
The news that lightsaber dueling has been officially recognized by a governing body is only the tip of a potential iceberg.
Since it’s release in 1977, Star Wars has been an entertainment behemoth, and is arguably the most popular movie franchise of all time. Much of its popularity has come from the fantasy element itself, with fans of the franchise going to great lengths to replicate the action/costumes that they see on screen. Almost inevitably, the dueling aspects of the movies are replicated in the real world, and lightsabers are probably the best option to bring George Lucas’ visions to life.
As a result, the lightsaber has become more than just a fictional weapon. We all remember the Star Wars Kid from YouTube, and there are hundreds of videos dedicated to lightsaber duels, reviews and, inevitably, the science behind the energy sword itself. You can even battle your friends in augmented reality, via the Star Wars: Jedi Challenges headset (available to purchase for a very reasonable $70).
Physical representations aside (and there are thousands of them available), the lightsaber has already made its mark in the nascent VR eSports industry. In fact, one of the most iconic pieces of weaponry ever created is the inspiration behind one of the rare pieces of successful virtual reality content.
Beat Saber, a hugely popular VR rhythm game, is one of the top-selling VR apps on the Steam platform, as well as being available on Oculus Rift and the Sony Playstation. The game itself is essentially Guitar Hero with lightsabers, a perfect combination that allows the player to slash his or her way through a number of music-centric levels that (unsurprisingly) get faster at a ridiculous rate.
Competitive Beat Saber players and digital athletes are already being followed via video streaming services such as Twitch, while there are close to 100 dedicated YouTube channels that feature the VR game, according to VR market analyst Greenlight Insights. Add into the mix that the simple mechanics make it easy to pick up and play – even in virtual reality – and it becomes clear that its community (and appeal) will continue to grow.
The future of dueling
The caveat to this is that VR lightsabers are not the same as having an actual weapon in your hand.
Actor Ewan McGregor reportedly said that he used to make the humming noise during his lightsaber duels on the Star Wars sets, which made the prop seem more real. In addition you only have to go to a Star Wars fan convention (or any Comic-Con, for that matter) to see how many attendees really wish that the LED-lit, rigid polycarbonate weapon hanging from their belts was capable of ending a cantina showdown.
Taking all of that into account, the acceptance of the lightsaber as a dueling weapon is great news. Fencing will naturally be the basis on which competitions are run, with points awarded for where the lightsaber makes contact during a three-minute duel.
However, The Verge reported that the sport will have additional rules that will improve its aesthetic appeal including the need for a competitor to sweep the lightsaber behind their head before they attempt a hit. Participants will also need to wear masks and protective clothing, although there has been no confirmation that people will need to identify as either Jedi or Sith.
Going for gold?
So, will we see lightsaber duels at the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2020? Unlikely, although the sport might have a chance of being one of the exhibition sports at the next event in Paris in 2024. After all, if beach volleyball, BMX riding and synchronized trampolining can earn you a gold medal, then there seems no reason why a person using a lightsaber for adventure and excitement can’t achieve Olympic glory.
At the very least, anything that encourages people to exercise more has got to be a good thing. Irrespective of whether you get to swing a luminescent blade of magnetically contained plasma or just a replica made of polycarbonate.